Incumbent Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly was the top vote getter in the February 18th primary capturing 50% of all votes cast statewide. Dane County Circuit Judge Jill Karofsky came in second with 37% followed by attorney Ed Fallone with 13%. On the surface, a 13-point win in the primary seems strong for Justice Kelly until you look closer at the expected turnout model in April.
The total turnout in the February 18th Supreme Court primary was 703,759. This was a high statewide turnout for a February primary, in part, because of highly contested races for Mayor and County Executive in Milwaukee County. April’s general election coincides with the presidential preference primary. That means voter turnout should match or exceed the 2 million voters who cast ballots in the 2016 presidential primary. In the 2016 presidential primary there were 2,076,601 votes cast. Republicans had a slight turnout advantage of 68,789. Senator Ted Cruz beat candidate Donald Trump by 144, 759 votes while Senator Bernie Sanders beat Sec. of State Hillary Clinton by 135,169.
Bernie Sanders captured 71 of 72 counties and won by 13%. Ted Cruz only won 27 counties, but also won by 13%. Wisconsin was the last state Donald Trump lost in the primaries on his way to winning the GOP nomination and the presidency. Trump became the first GOP presidential candidate to win Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
On paper, it would seem Judge Karofsky would have a turnout advantage in April. Democrats will be motivated to come out and vote for their favorite primary candidate. Moreover, there are still general elections for Mayor and County Executive in Democrat stronghold Milwaukee County as well as a massive county-wide school referendum in Milwaukee County. Judge Karofsky is from ever-blue Dane County and Bernie Sanders is expected to perform extremely well there. Democrats will vote in April – particularly in Milwaukee and Dane County. The tricky part of Karofsky’s campaign is trying to align herself with ALL the Democrat presidential candidates so there is no down ballot drop-off in her vote total. That’s easier said than done.
Justice Kelly is the conservative choice for Supreme Court. The RNC and the Trump campaign have already begun to notify Trump supporters in Wisconsin that Justice Kelly is their guy. It’s a simple alignment. One candidate at the top of the ticket telling his supporters to stay with the ballot and cast their vote for Justice Dan Kelly. The big difference this year is Donald Trump is competing hard in every primary state. He’s not taking anything for granted and is not saving his resources until the general election. Trump is fighting for every single vote and the early results have been remarkable. Trump captured more votes in Iowa and New Hampshire than any incumbent seeking reelection in history. President Trump has already been to Milwaukee this year and is coming to Waukesha in early March. Many expect him back at least one more time before the primary to fire up his base. Moreover, Vice-President Mike Pence is also campaigning in Wisconsin and will be in LaCrosse and likely other areas of the state before April 7th.
Most pundits, me included, expect a big turnout in April. But I do not expect it to be lopsided in Democrats favor despite some built in advantages. The bigger question for Justice Kelly will be the voter drop-off down ticket. Can he keep all the Trump supporters in the booth long enough to also cast a ballot for him?
There was some underreported good news in the primary results for Justice Kelly. He captured 38% of the vote in Milwaukee County with a very high turnout. That is significantly better than high 20s President Trump received in November of 2016 or Governor Walker received in November of 2018 in Milwaukee County. Judge Karofsky got 40% of the vote in Milwaukee County. If Kelly can maintain 35-40% of the vote in Milwaukee County in April he will be reelected. Kelly can do slightly worse in Milwaukee County and still win, but he cannot get blown out.
There is other good news in the February primary numbers for Justice Kelly. He did exceptionally well in what many Republicans refer to as the “BAD” counties; Bayfield, Ashland, Douglas. As a native of Superior, I don’t accept this characterization! My dad grew up in Bayfield County and my grandfather was a dentist in Ashland County. But enough about me. Kelly won Douglas County with 50% of the vote. He only lost Ashland County by 2% and lost Bayfield County by 10%. There three counties are not huge vote producers, but they have been trending red/conservative since Trump’s election in 2016. Tommy Thompson was the last Republican to win all three of the BAD counties in 1994.
Justice Kelly won 62 of 72 counties in the primary. He captured 91,113 more votes than Judge Karofsky. But to win in a higher turnout April general election Kelly will need to push his turnout higher in the suburban Milwaukee Counties, win convincingly in the Green Bay media market and outstate, and cut his deficits in Milwaukee and Dane County.
Justice Kelly’s biggest weapon in the April general election is Donald Trump. Sure,Kelly has raised twice as much money as Karofsky, and has been running hard for reelection for more than a year. He also has a strong record on the Supreme Court to run on. But If Trump wasn’t competing hard in the Wisconsin primary, then Justice Kelly would likely be in trouble.
Conservatives cannot take this race for granted. They need to put as much time and energy into electing Justice Dan Kelly to a full term on the Supreme Court as they do to helping Donald Trump send a message to the Democrats on April 7th.